Every day since my seventh birthday, that first shock of reality followed me into my apartment. Covered windows transformed the room into a black-and-white movie. The smells struck hard—cardboard and plastic, the tangy rubber of new sneakers. Throat-itching dust I could never clean fast enough. I smelled something new since this morning when I left for school. Dry dog food? A bag must’ve ripped open, one of maybe five stacked against the wall. They’d been on sale last week at a huge markdown, so naturally, she had to buy them.
Except…we didn’t have a dog.
Somewhere, inside this den of unspeakable clutter, I would find a hoarder. My mother.
I flipped the lights, stepping around the newest pile of shipping boxes into what psychologists referred to as a goat tunnel. A few goat tunnels ran through our home—uncluttered passages chronic hoarders often left clear, where you could actually walk. This particular passage led from the front door through the living room, stopping at our tiny kitchen.
Mom owned dozens of baskets and vases for flowers she never picked. We hardly used tin cans, but we had eight can openers. Enough sheets and linens waited for twenty beds, when we only had two bedrooms. Cases of CDs and bargain bin movies lined the apartment. Dated VCR tapes and speakers, all in a silent home.
But wouldn’t they make great gifts someday? One day, someone might need them.
I passed crates containing enough brushes, hair dryers, and curling irons to service the entire Miss America pageant. Bundles of unread magazines, with recipes she couldn’t wait to make, if only she cooked. I inched by the blue tweed sofa, where she’d carved enough room for one, maybe two people. Mismatched pillows and knitted throws blanketed the rest of the space. We had one working TV you could watch, but only if you angled your head just so around the piles of piles. Six Bubble-Wrapped TVs stood like sentries along one wall. Shelves jumbled with cables and cords and boxes heaped with office supplies. Dozens of picture frames held no photos.
My stomach clenched when I finally found my mother—one Andrea Wells—bent over the kitchen counter, her elbows perched on the blue Formica. She rested her chin in both hands. A vodka bottle lay on its side, contents drip-dripping from its long neck onto the beige tiled floor. Near my mother’s forearm, a glass was stained with red lipstick.
My eyes trailed to the cause of the crash and commotion: two dining room chairs had toppled over, and the mass of plates, stacked head-high on the counter this morning, lay in shattered pieces across the floor.
The loss of the plates was nothing, really. After all, Mom had collected at least thirty full sets of china, enough to service a grand dinner party for guests who would never come. Still, the loss would mean everything to her.
“Darcy. I… I’m sorry.” Her voice wobbled and sloshed, like the alcohol she’d emptied from the glass. But how many times over? How much had she had to drink?
I couldn’t bring myself to speak yet, so I focused on getting her settled. I pulled one of the fallen chairs to the counter through shards of broken china and folded her into it with some difficulty. She was long and thin like me, but moving her was akin to uprooting a statue. I stared into her brown, unfocused eyes; she’d drunk her expertly applied makeup into a clown face of raccoon eyeliner, feathered lipstick, and runny mascara.
Although my mother drank sometimes, she wasn’t an alcoholic. Enough counseling and professional analysis had concluded that Mom didn’t need the alcohol itself. She didn’t need the routine oblivion of the drink. She overdosed on things. Our home was wasted with them.
“So sorry. Darcy, you know, baby.”
“Yes, I know.”
“Read to me,” she said while I picked up the vodka bottle. “Just a little.”
She always asked me to read aloud when she was drunk. Only when she was drunk. For years, she’d only tolerate books—the sight of them, the melody of their narrative—when her mind was clouded and delirious. This, from an English major who’d taught me to read at three years old.
There were no books nearby, none anywhere in this part of our house. She had her reasons for that. But I didn’t need to hold a book to read to her. I had enough literature inside me to recite it by heart: a storehouse full of pages and passages.
“What do you want today?” I asked her.
“Something from Emma.” Mom usually asked for Jane Austen until she woke the next day, hungover and remembering she hated books.
But I loved them. I could see the text of Emma in my mind, clear as a photo. I closed my eyes and zoomed in on the novel like a lens, in a way no one has ever been able to explain. Least of all, me.
Since kindergarten, my mind has been a story bank. I read and read, and I remember.